The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
My Lords, this group of amendments covers Part 9 of the Bill. I will cover the group in two parts, if I may.
Amendment 90A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord German, would allow local authorities to establish and maintain secure academies either alone or in consortia. The noble Lord kindly mentioned the sustained engagement that he has had with me and others on this matter; in turn, I acknowledge my gratitude to him for his time and commitment. As he mentioned, I wrote to him and the noble Lord, Lord Marks, outlining that, in our view, it would be legally possible for a local authority to set up an entity capable of entering into academy arrangements directly with the Secretary of State, and that this is not prevented by the Academies Act. Therefore, as I set out in that letter, there is no legal bar to what the noble Lord wants to happen. I understand that, as he said, he wants to put the matter “beyond any doubt”, but I have explained in writing that there is no legal doubt on this point at all; indeed, I think I heard him accept this afternoon that it is “clear” there is no legal bar. I therefore say to him and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, that there is no issue of being debarred here. I suggest that the amendment is therefore unnecessary.
I accept that the Government’s policy remains that academy trusts are not local authority-influenced companies and that our position on secure schools is to mirror academies’ procedures. However, I can confirm that, when considering the market of providers of future secure schools, my department will assess in detail the potential role of local authorities in running this new form of provision. We of course recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, noted, that local authorities have a long-established role in children’s social care and the provision of secure accommodation for children and young people. In particular, the secure children’s homes legal framework may present a more straightforward route than the 16-19 academies framework for the expansion of local authority involvement in the provision of secure accommodation. However, I reiterate that there is no legal bar here. I therefore suggest that the amendment must necessarily be unnecessary.
I now turn to Amendments 90B to 90F, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. Local authorities have a duty, under the Children Act 1989, to ensure sufficient, appropriate accommodation for all the children they look after and to ensure sufficient children’s homes for other children whose welfare requires it, whether or not they are looked-after children. I recognise that some local authorities have sometimes found it difficult to access the most appropriate accommodation, particularly for children with the most complex needs. It is right to say, both from the judgment of Lord Justice Baker, which was mentioned, and indeed from other judgments, that some of these children have extremely challenging and very complex needs. It is also the case that, sometimes, children are placed in locations away from home when they may be better served by a placement in their local area if one were available. We are looking carefully at that, not only in my department but in others as well.
We are taking significant steps to support local authorities to fulfil their statutory duty. We have started a programme of work this year to support local authorities to maintain existing capacity and to expand provision in secure children’s homes to ensure that children can live closer to home and in provision that best meets their needs. In the spending review we announced £259 million to continue this programme to maintain and expand capacity in both secure and open residential children’s homes. We acknowledge, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, that it may take—I will use the same phrase—some time to see all the benefits of that capital investment, particularly when you are talking about new builds, but it is the case that the capital programme will also result in increased capacity in the secure children’s home estate in the shorter term as we seek to create more beds through investment in a range of projects, including extensions of current buildings, refurbishments and rebuilds. I know that in the judgment referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Justice Baker used the phrase “urgent attention”, and that is what we are giving this problem.
Ofsted has also taken steps to support local authorities in this area. It has an amended process to make it easier for local authorities or other providers to apply for registration of children’s homes in emergency situations. It is also now easier to open and run a single-bed children’s home, which can be one of the most commonly needed types of accommodation when the child has very complex needs. It can be almost impossible, sometimes, to have more than one child in that location. Ofsted has now published guidance on these changes, and I hope that will help as well.
Before I sit down, I should also remind the House of two other relevant pieces of work ongoing in this area. First, the independent review of children’s social care, which commenced in March last year, is looking at this whole area in a fundamental way. Secondly, also in March last year, the Competition and Markets Authority launched a market study examining the lack of availability and increasing costs in children’s social care provision, including children’s homes and fostering. It has proposed a number of changes, of which I will not go into detail now, but they are important. We will look at the full reports when they come out. I expect both of those pieces of work to be serious and substantial reports.
I recognise the aims of all noble Lords who have supported these amendments; we all share the same aims here, but I suggest that we have existing statutory requirements and significant, wide-ranging and independent reviews under way, looking at the whole care system, alongside that CMA market study. For those reasons, I hope the noble Lord, Lord German, will withdraw his amendment and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, will not press his. I urge them to do so.